When we talk of a demographic dividend, what exactly do we mean?
In the context of India, we are at a stage when the birth rate has gone down substantially. The death rate, too, is decreasing, though not at the same rate. What this means is that the bulk of India's population is in the working age group of 15 to 58. If we represent our population in an age pyramid, you will see that there is a huge bulge in the centre, representing this youthful age group.
The speciality right now is that the age group of, say 20 to 50, has fewer people dependent on it as compared with previous generations, mainly because birth rates have declined and families are smaller. So, this group can afford to save, invest and have a better quality of life. It also helps create better human capital for the next generation. This phase of our demographic dividend started around a decade or so ago.
The second part of the demographic dividend will kick in shortly, and for some decades, co-exist with the first part. This will be spearheaded by the 40 and above age group, which will all live longer and therefore will be saving for their post-retirement years. At this stage, the government will have to look at creating social security.
What is median age? What is the significance of India's median age being 27?
India's median age now is 27, which means that the average age of an Indian is 27. In other words, half the country's population―640 million people―is below the age of 27. It benefits us because it means that our human capital is at an all-time high. We have a phenomenal workforce at hand.
Why is it such a good time to be young in India?
India is going through a phase called the window of demographic opportunity. The new adults have fewer children dependent on them. Studies show that the new crop of retirees have better savings and remunerative opportunities than their peers, which means that their dependency on the youth, too, is less. The median-agers can, therefore, think more for themselves than the previous generations could.
What is the challenge, then?
On the one hand, you have this young and restless population, brimming with ideas and enthusiasm. On the other, job growth hasn't been the same as the number of aspirants. Worse, a large chunk of the youth is not skilled enough. Addressing this mismatch is the challenge for India.
So, do you think India may miss this opportunity to maximise its human capital?
There is still time. Our projections show that the demographic dividend will last another 30 years, at least. The next five years are crucial; there are several government plans like Make in India and Skill India. Also, India will continue contributing to the global workforce; our human capital could be a great export. But as an Indian, I would want us to export engineers, rather than labourers. The effort that the government and the private sector take immediately will decide whether our dividends will be high or modest.
How would you compare our demographic story with China's?
China has transited out of its demographic dividend. Because of its one-child policy (started in the 1980s), in China, the demographic transition happened very swiftly, and within 15 years, they were out of the phase of the population pyramid bulging in the centre because their fertility rates declined sharply. In India, rates of change are slower, our population growth is still above the replacement level (the stage when the birth and death rates balance out and the population size doesn't change) of 2.1. So, our window of opportunity will be for a longer time.